Educating to Teach

Last month, the Higher Education Group of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto hosted a symposium to discuss the options, challenges and possibilities for creating three new campuses in Ontario. Ian Clark, David Trick and I discussed the opportunities and challenges of establishing new undergraduate teaching universities in Ontario. Given that part of the notion of teaching universities is that they will enhance the student experience and ultimately student success, I find this an important topic to consider. In this post, I share an updated excerpt from the remarks I gave at the symposium.

The possibility of creating three new universities in Ontario is exciting. It indicates the important role postsecondary education plays for the province’s continued growth and success. But the question that we are tasked to consider today is, how does the province grow the sector recognizing the competing demands between greater access to a university education and knowledge production?

Ian Clark and his colleagues rightly identify this tension in their book, Academic Transformation. In wrestling with possibilities for system re-design, they make several noteworthy suggestions. They suggest that colleges could play a larger role in providing baccalaureate programs and that students in career-related college programs should have more opportunities to transfer to university. It appears the provincial government is onboard with these recommendations considering the announcement to develop the Ontario credit transfer system.

The authors of Academic Transformation suggest also that universities could offer three-year pre-professional degrees, and that the province could create an open university. Despite a high profile endorsement in the 2010 throne speech, the province’s commitment to moving forward with the Ontario Online Institute is a little less certain. However, the 3 Cubed discussion paper suggests the province’s openness and interest in conceiving of postsecondary education from a fairly flexible perspective.

Another suggestion in Academic Transformation, also advanced in a recent HEQCO report, is the notion of greater differentiation within the university sector, with the provincial government incentivizing institutions to differentiate through mission-related funding envelopes. One way to further institutional differentiation is through either creating or allowing institutions to self-identify as “teaching institutions.” Although a discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of differentiation is not to be the sole purpose of the Three New Campuses for Ontario symposium, it seems clear that differentiation and the possibility of creating “teaching institutions” has been central to the dialogue.

Proponents of differentiation acknowledge that provincial Memorandums of Understanding are central to holding institutions to their specified mission. Clearly, the reality of “mission creep” is well-recognized. In the past five years, several of the province’s “baccalaureate” and current “teaching” universities have developed graduate, mostly masters, programs and simultaneously have demonstrated great success in receiving Tri-Council research funding. The colleges have not been immune for moving toward a broader research agenda in the creation of applied research programs and administrative units to provide support to this newly embraced mandate. These are just two examples of how “mission creep” is real and perhaps unavoidable. Mission creep aside, I would like to address my remarks specifically to the feasibility of creating universities which have an expressed “teaching emphasis”.

At several points in Academic Transformation, Clark and his colleagues identify that one of the key elements of the research university model is the belief in the teacher-researcher ideal which holds that undergraduate students should be taught by professors who are active researchers. This leads me to wonder if our challenge in providing high quality undergraduate education is largely a measure of how we have come to view research and the role of researching faculty. I would like to suggest that undergraduate education may be better served if we re-frame our notions of research, teaching and service and expand our understanding of teaching and learning on our university campuses.

We have created a university culture that places research above all else. Graduate students, many of whom become future faculty, are inculcated throughout their graduate career to focus on research. The Ph.D., after all, is a research degree, culminating in successfully defending one’s dissertation research. Other components of faculty life (teaching as a classroom instructor, thesis supervisor, mentor, advisor) are not explicitly taught and may not even be discussed during doctoral education. Although service to one’s field through membership and participation in professional organizations or serving on journal editorial boards is often part of graduate students’ socialization, graduate students and early career faculty members are socialized to avoid service to the institution. Service, as it pertains to sitting on academic planning committees, faculty senate, and general participation in collegial governance within one’s institution is put aside until after tenure. Thus, graduate students (our future faculty) and early career faculty are socialized to see their future role largely as it pertains to developing their research agenda, securing external funding, and publishing, publishing, publishing.

If research is at the centre of doctoral education and the socialization of early career faculty, then teaching is on the periphery. Graduate students who intend to seek faculty positions may avail themselves of opportunities to develop their teaching and pedagogy. There are a number of excellent teaching certificate programs at institutions across the province. The challenge is that these programs are largely voluntary. Outside of graduate students serving as Teaching Assistants, there are few avenues in which future faculty have a chance to prepare themselves for one of the central tasks of the profession, teaching.  

To what extent senior faculty facilitate graduate students’ teaching abilities and include them as meaningful members of the teaching team is an empirical question and one that I am looking into with colleagues at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation at the University of Toronto. I applaud institutions that have developed certificate programs in teaching preparation but until these programs are mandatory, our future faculty will have little actual training in what comprises 40% of their faculty appointment, teaching. Even less rare is graduate education which asks graduate students to integrate their research interests with their teaching, calling on one to inform the other.

Even new full-time tenure-stream faculty who take advantage of their institution’s new faculty orientation program will likely be told about the research support services, the teaching support services, and again the research support services. In a recent report released by HEQCO and authored by Carol Miles and Dragana Polovina-Vukovic, fewer than half of the faculty orientation sessions conducted by the province’s teaching and learning centres included a session on student assessment or course design and fewer than 15% included a panel with students.

The socialization that graduate students receive throughout their doctoral education and that early career faculty experience makes the “hidden curriculum” fairly apparent:  research matters. That said, there is great teaching taking place at research universities. However, until the culture has shifted to one in which reflection on one’s teaching (for example linking course learning outcomes with assignment design, inviting a colleague in to provide feedback on pedagogy, re-designing the course outline in light of one’s research findings) is as routine as turning the conference paper into a journal manuscript, research will continue to trump teaching.

Creating new teaching-focused institutions won’t erase the socialization that graduate students and early career faculty have had for the last five to ten years of their lives. The concern I have with differentiation, particularly as it relates to creating “teaching universities” is that we have a preparatory system where teaching is never given centre stage. Future faculty are socialized to prize research and thus gaining a faculty position at an institutions where research is at the forefront will be perceived as top tier. Beyond the individual faculty member, how can we prevent institutions with a larger teaching emphasis from “creeping” toward having a broader research mandate when their faculty have been so steeped in a culture of research?

The reality is that our current research universities will likely continue to educate the majority of undergraduate students. Thus, system re-design must begin with research universities: both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Preparing Future Faculty (see joint program between AACU & Council of Graduate Schools: is not something that we should take lightly. If the public values the notion that students should be exposed to, taught by, and learn with scholar-teachers, then we need to re-shape the expectations for current faculty and invest in preparing and socializing future faculty to truly uphold the mantle of scholar-teacher.

As I stated earlier, I think our system can provide a quality undergraduate education to increasing numbers of students but it requires a willingness to re-frame how we prepare future faculty and how we reward our current faculty with regard to research, teaching and service.

We can start by reframing our conception of “scholarship.” Currently, we consider scholarship in the most narrow conceptualization of the term. Ernest Boyer in his 1990 classic “Scholarship Reconsidered” reminds us that the term “research” only entered our vocabulary late in the 19th century. Prior to that, scholarship embodied a variety of creative work, including the scholarship of integration, application and teaching in addition to the scholarship of discovery.

What if all of our universities created spaces where the broadest conception of “scholarship” was valued? What if it was as common to find faculty engaged in the “scholarship of teaching” at research universities, given the sheer number of students who may benefit from an improved student experience? What if this type of scholarship was touted to the same degree as a scholarship of discovery breakthrough?

What if all new faculty positions required a teaching demonstration as part of the application and interview process? What if graduate programs began to strongly encourage their students who have identified an interest in the professoriate to complete teaching certificate programs? What if these same programs created a developmental teaching program for their student TAs to progressively take on roles with greater responsibility and creativity in the process of teaching and learning?

Frank Rhodes, past president of Cornell University, wrote: “it is undergraduate teaching, and learning, that is the central task …it is on undergraduate education that the health of the research university will stand or fall.” As the postsecondary education for the 21st century conversation continues, I hope we seize the opportunity to re-frame our notions of research, teaching and service for our current and future faculty.

I hope you will join this conversation about the role of teaching as a form of scholarship in our universities. Please leave a comment and join in this dialogue.

– Tricia Seifert


One thought on “Educating to Teach

  1. “The socialization that graduate students receive throughout their doctoral education and that early career faculty experience makes the “hidden curriculum” fairly apparent: research matters”
    There is nothing the matter with improving research skills and generating ideas ideas as a guiding force but the notion that everyone involved in “Highe Education” is seeking a tenured teaching position is rubbish. As a part-time Edd student I am frustrated and disappointed in the lack of support for those seeking to learn–for the sake of learning. What/who are we seeking to reproduce with our present university system?

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